Julie Taymor’s stunning production of Elton John and Tim Rice’s The Lion King – in the middle of a major UK tour as well as in its 16th year in the West End – is a visual spectacle and a true theatrical experience. The magical opening sequence of ‘The Circle of Life’, the show’s best-known number, is an incredulous piece of staging, with the sun rising on the stage and a host of animals appearing, many through the auditorium of its current home, the Wales Millennium Centre (with its iconic wooden decor providing a fabulous backdrop to this particular show). The moment that an elephant appears, swiftly followed by a baby elephant, gliding its way through the theatre and onto the stage, is quite special. Taymor and Michael Curry’s clever and realistic puppet design has become an iconic feature of this show, and finds the perfect marriage with Donald Holder’s atmospheric lighting design and choreographer Garth Fagan’s movement. Most of the human actors behind the animal puppets quickly become one with the animals they are portraying and the audience truly feel that they are in their own magical kingdom.

Such is the power of the opening sequence – led by the call of Thulisile Thusi’s zany Rafiki – that it’s almost a shame when the actors actually start speaking. The story of young Simba – well known through the hugely successful and iconic Disney film – stays quite true to the original, with Cleveland Cathnott having great presence as King Mufasa, as he is pitted against the brooding villain of his brother Scar (Christopher Colquhoun). Welshman Meilyr Siôn scores with a strong Scottish accent as the King’s henchman Zazu, who protects Elijah Peterkin’s Young Simba – a large first-half role for one so young – from the evil outside. Dominic Brewer and Nicholas Osmond play a fun comedy duo (Timon and Pumbaa) too, with Brewer decked head to toe – Elphaba like – in green. The iconic stampede sequence of the film is particularly well staged, as is a sequence featuring flying birds around the auditorium at the start of Act 2.

Musically, Elton John and Tim Rice’s score and lyrics combine mainstream pop with South African chant-like pieces which provide an effective backdrop to many scenes. There aren’t that many well-known tunes in it – but Young Simba’s ‘I Just Can’t Wait To Be King’, the moving ‘They Live In You’ and the familiar, uplifting ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight’ stand out amongst the varied, multi-textured score and sound. Talking of sound, the percussion are in two boxes at either side of the stage, adding greatly to the atmosphere – interesting too, to watch as well as hear the percussionists creating so many different and unusual sounds.

The second half strays a little from the original concept, with a few lapses in the action, along with an increasing amount of local references, some amusing, which take you out of that world, albeit momentarily. Some of the acting performances become more broadly drawn too, and the show comes rather too close to pantomime. But there’s no denying the sheer innovativeness of this production – from the shadow puppets and images which are used sparingly to the exquisite movement which is definitely its strength – especially the movement of the lions’ heads as Mufasa and Scar clash and in the eventual closeness of the relationship between Simba and his mother. Julie Taymor created something quite unique with The Lion King, which might account for it, somewhat surprisingly, being the longest running Disney stage show, with no sign of the sun going down just yet. ‘The Circle of Life’ is reprised for a satisfactory conclusion to this visual piece, this time with a new meaning for Simba and his own family.